Sunlight falls like a string of fluorescent bulbs on Marlene’s neck. Sweat traces the sag of her hips as the line outside the gallery spills out onto the street. She’s sweated half of the day with half of L.A. in the space between a pharmacy and a furniture depot. They’re waiting for a piece of performance art that the daily paper swears will change your life.
Marlene has never done this before. Her neighbor Janine was the one who slipped the ad under her apartment door. Janine is the type of woman who applies lipstick before moving her laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. Marlene is not. When she picked up the paper, she saw Janine’s note clipped to it, written in purple scrawl:
You want a new life, don’t you?
The people on the line look like they came out of a catalogue. The women have sunglasses and are in tall black boots, the men are all thin as rails and wear leather jackets or cashmere sweaters with metal fixtures. Marlene can tell. She hasn’t lived in California long, and she keeps noticing how each person is adorned. She wonders what it is like to wake up every morning and put a new layer of skin on.
Marlene moved to L.A. when her life fell apart. Her life fell apart the way lives fall apart in predictable films or glossy paperbacks you get at the airport. Nothing special. Nothing extraordinary. She was married to a man who decided one day he didn’t want to be married anymore.
Marlene feels like it must be her turn to go in soon, but her wristwatch is broken, so she can’t be certain. The artist’s statement is printed on the advertisement. She has it in her pocket and keeps reading it over and over again as she waits. It takes up half a page:
Each of our actions is a performance.
Some of us are more willing to acknowledge this fact than others.
Consider what you did this morning: Did you change clothes? Why did you feel the need to remove the garments you wore for sleeping only to replace them with garments deemed for waking?
Was this a choice you made? Or was this a choice made by someone else?
Maybe you’ve never asked yourself this question before.
When you moved into your current dwelling, did you put anything on the walls? Did you paint them? Think of your body as a hotel room. Standard. The same picture hangs above the bed in your room that hangs above beds in every other room. On every other floor. In every other building.
Do you feel small?
Rooms are designed to make you feel comfortable. This room is designed to make you question whether or not you would choose comfort, given the choice.
Ask yourself: Do I have a choice?
Please be aware that this is a silent performance. One-time entry.
Then the date and time is listed.
Marlene wonders whether her experience will be more special or less special than the experiences of the manicured women and the neatly rugged men standing behind and in front of her. Then she asks herself, maybe because of the advertisement’s suggestion: Why have I categorized them? Why do I organize people to try to understand them? How can I think I know a person I’ve barely looked at, when I didn’t know the person I agreed to spend my life with?
At the same time, Marlene thinks: Why should my life be any different? Colossal things don’t happen to me, they aren’t supposed to happen to me. Tragedies, real tragedies, like dead children or aggressive diseases appearing in someone brilliant, those are for other people. My life has small disappointments. They are sad, but uneventful.
This is why Marlene has always hated prayer. It’s never made sense to her. The deal is: If something good happens, if a child lives, if your husband stays, if you’re able to make someone happy who doesn’t wish to be happy, then God exists, then God is real. If not, then what? But the deal is also: It’s okay for something horrific to happen to someone else, as long as it doesn’t happen to you—to you or to your family. Then God is good. Then God is real.
Marlene isn’t sure about real anymore. She isn’t sure whether that is a thing that matters to her.
Janine is somewhere between a glossy person and a normal. A normal is a label Marlene has used ever since coming to California. She made it up because she kept encountering people who either seemed like they weren’t real or that she could just almost identify with. Janine was this hybrid, a woman who always had her face done, but who also sobbed when a bakery closed to make way for a juice chain. She was good to Marlene, meaning she smiled and said hello when they passed each other in the hall or when they rode the same elevator. This made Marlene feel less alone.
If at least one person says hello to you, even if they feel obliged to say hello to you, than that is one more person than none.
Unbeknownst to Marlene, she had become a test dummy. As it happened, Janine saw people quite similarly: She knew that she wasn’t quite a model and wasn’t quite ordinary, but that Marlene was definitively plain. Marlene was forgettable, a label that meant she could do anything, because there were no expectations of her, because she was invisible. The first thing Janine did, somewhat innocently, was suggest places for Marlene to visit. Afterward, she made half-hearted inquiries that resulted in astoundingly full reports from Marlene about dress codes and atmospheres and the quality of other visitors.
That is when Janine knew she had assessed her appropriately. While Marlene herself was uninteresting, the world interested her. She was an extraordinary observer, and her reports often included visceral meditations that Janine later repeated during dates arranged on the internet.
This performance piece was no exception. Janine had heard about the artist—well, heard about the performance, because there was very little available about the artist, he was obscure, but there was a fuss about the piece. Each person who saw it had trouble articulating what it was and how they felt when they left, but almost all claimed, something in them had changed, they were different.
After another hour, Marlene finds herself alone at the entrance. It is just Marlene, Marlene and a security guard, neither speaks to the other. Then enormous doors, like a meat freezer, clatter open.
“I’m Marlene,” Marlene says, as she walks in.
She really isn’t speaking to anyone. The doors close behind her. Her eyes adjust to the room.
A man with a paper bag for a head is stationed at a folding table. He doesn’t acknowledge her presence. There are no slits, no eyeholes. His body is covered with a black barber’s cloak.
The room is nothing like she imagined. She’d thought of artificial light, of courtrooms; of television, of Hollywood glitz, of glam, of standing on the line between the stage kitchen and the buffet table for the crew; this wasn’t it. She’d often thought of her life as straddling that line. She could see the faceless workers, their black tee shirts, their silence; them like miniature wheels in a clock, moving the hands, propelling time, really, their names never earning much fame, the last white print bleeding into the yawn of the audience.
And then there was the set: the perfect countertops never graced with crumbs, the drawers empty, fruit pristine more often than not, plastic. The edges of the table only slightly in view, three chairs, the other half never making it to the screen.
After Janine had suggested it, Marlene thought maybe there was some truth to the advertisement. She thought maybe by coming here, by asking herself questions she hadn’t asked before, she could penetrate artificiality. She could find herself in an enclosed set, a world that doesn’t get cut off midway, that is confined in a tight space; contained, preserved, an island really, but this place has a completely open roof.
How is this possible? she thinks. Yesterday it rained, startling for L.A., unheard of really, the only way Californians come face to face with mortality.
“That’s open?” She asks the man with the paper bag head.
She’s closer now. Her face in line with where she imagines his to be. It strikes her as a bit ridiculous. He’s wearing what should be a children’s lunch pail. There are symbols on it, gibberish written in Sharpie. It looks like someone fell asleep with their fingers clutching the marker.
He doesn’t move.
“It can’t be completely open.” Marlene looks up. “Well, I suppose it could.”
She hears only her own voice. “I’m beginning to talk to myself. This happens often, I presume?”
The only other time Marlene had even heard of performance art was when she was driving through Wyoming, on her way to California. She’d made a wrong turn by an elementary school and ended up in an artist colony; that was when she saw all the balloons. She was ecstatic because she loved carnivals; she loved celebrations. She pulled into the school parking lot and got out before she had even considered the implications of being a childless adult.
She remembered that when she was a child, all she had wanted was for someone to fill a room with balloons for her. But she never got any balloons because her mother said: Balloons are wasteful. They are material and then they pop and are nothing and you watch them die. You watch them dry up like raisins or they explode and startle you. Then her mother said: People do that, too, so why spend money on something that will last for a few hours and then disintegrate right in front of you?
Marlene understood what her mother meant, or she had thought at the time that she did. She thought: Don’t be wasteful. She thought: Maybe there are other decorations that are better. She thought: One day, I will do something that will make Mom so proud that she will get me some. She thought: There is time to change her mind, just wait until I’m older.
But when Marlene was ten, either her mother left or her mother died. Marlene was not certain. Her father would not tell her. One day her mother was there and the next day, she wasn’t.
Marlene thinks this is somewhat similar to what happened with her husband. But then she remembers the man with the paper bag head and becomes self-conscious.
She circles the table where he is sitting and not moving.
“You really don’t speak.” She says it like an accusation. It is.
“It’s funny, I knew you didn't, it says that on the advertisement, it says that online, it was in boldface on the email, but I thought: Well, he has to say something. What if you get cold? Do you eat? What if you suddenly feel compelled to speak? The guards stop letting us line up at 5:47 pm, that’s an odd time. After that, do you turn into a pumpkin? I assumed it was a typo, but no, the website, the advertisement, the email, the sign, those can’t all be wrong. Well, I guess it’s possible.”
Marlene sets her hands on the table. A thrill runs through her, the thrill that the table is real; she feels the material. It is hard plastic, she smoothes her palms against it.
“Look how hopeful I’ve become. I’m expanding right in front of you, only you have that stupid thing over your head. You can’t see me.”
The man with the paper bag head remains still.
“You know what this is like? This is like that TV show where people sing and the judges can’t see them. It removes the way we perceive each other, the way we perceive the world. But do you think we’re really ourselves without our bodies? Don’t our voices just blend together? Are you even aware of when one of us leaves and another one enters?”
Then another thought occurs to her. If the man cannot see her, maybe the man does not know she is a normal. Or can he tell? What are the ways she reveals her dullness? Has she done it already?
The only other time Marlene has seen balloons like the ones she saw in Wyoming was when she was eleven, and she and her father were driving past a car dealership. There were rows and rows of red and white balloons. Marlene smashed her face against the back window and kicked the seat in front of her and begged and begged and begged for them to stop. And they did stop. They pulled into the parking lot. Marlene was so thrilled, so excited; she was this close to one of the balloons, close enough to touch it.
Her father got out of the car, walked over, and slapped her. He said: “Don’t you ever shout like that when we’re driving! You could’ve killed us. You’re an idiot.”
Marlene did not say anything.
“You’re just like your mother, ridiculous and immature.”
Then her father pulled out his Swiss Army knife and used his thumb to reveal a small, sharp blade. He brought it up to Marlene’s face and said: “Want to know how great balloons are?”
He proceeded, then, to pop the balloons, one by one, in front of her. There was the small bang each time, then the whooshing sound of deflation; one by one, the balloons collapsing in sad little heaps onto the new cars. Her father was still stabbing the balloons when a woman dressed in a black pantsuit, her hair tied back in a ponytail, came scurrying over and ushered them away. She had a smile that looked friendly but that, Marlene learned, really meant: I will call the cops if you do not leave this instant.
That is also when Marlene learned that her father had a record, which originally she thought meant like a CD, like music, but the way he kept saying it as they drove away, the way he mentioned it whenever they passed a police station, or were passing one of those large buildings with a placard out front and a flag, she realized that that meant he had done something bad; something that was not exactly kosher, which is a thing one of her friends at school had said once, but she didn’t know what it meant except that certain foods couldn’t be eaten together. She thought like pickles and ice cream, or turkey sandwiches and peanut butter, but when she told her father this, he told her again that she was an idiot and that she shouldn’t be hanging out with those kinds of people. He said that he didn’t know what kosher meant, but that he was smart enough to know she was mistaken.
Still, all those years later, when Marlene stood in that field, accidentally between an artist colony and an elementary school, the balloons brought her joy, or the possibility of joy. Like ice cream: a small thing that she found cheerful and comforting.
Now Marlene stands behind the man with the paper bag head. Her hands hover above him. She motions like a magician about to perform a trick.
She thinks: Maybe I will touch him.
“I can’t remember the last time I was in a room with a man without a television. In the waiting room at the doctor’s office there are infomercials. With my father, there was Cops, with my husband, the news.”
She puts her hands on the man’s shoulders. They are there. They are in front of her. She can almost feel his skin under the thin barber’s cloak. She rocks his body towards her.
“Are you asleep right now? Are you sedated; simply a mannequin? Am I just blabbering to no one? No, no that would be too cruel. You wouldn’t do that. Look at me, Miss Positivity.”
Marlene tightens her grip. The man with the paper bag head is bony.
“You know, my father was a silent sleeper too, don’t take it harshly; it isn’t your fault, it’s your design, your construction. People are different. Take my father and me: I always dream vividly, sometimes I snooze, not to get more sleep, but to exist more within the walls of my mind, it’s much more vibrant sometimes. My father never dreamt, he swore nothing happened when he closed his eyes. Imagine, no dreams. You know the saddest thing? We all dream, science proves it. I’m not a scientist, but I have a subscription to Psychology Today. Anyway, it’s proven, we all dream. Each time we fall asleep, our minds are freed, let out of our cage, you see?”
Only the man couldn’t see, he had chosen not to.
When Marlene got closer to those balloons in Wyoming, she saw it wasn’t a carnival at all. It was a tall man with a messy beard, blowing up balloons with a big tank of helium. On the grass sat dozens of people, smartly dressed artists in glasses and black tunics. All of them watched the man blowing up balloons in a stupor. There was so much silence, so much stillness. Each of his movements became significant. Each time a balloon popped, the viewers shuddered; that single rupture was an enormous noise, a noise made more enormous by their motionlessness.
There was a small blonde woman filming the performance. Marlene wondered if the presence of the camera was the thing that made it meaningful. She couldn’t be certain.
The bearded man was holding a bouquet of balloons, they were multicolored, but not in a coordinated way, not like at the car dealership, in a way that felt random and strange. As she watched him wrap the balloons’ ribbons around his wrist and up his arms, suddenly it became clear to Marlene that the man was trying to use the balloons to get off the ground. He was trying to get in the air; he was trying to float.
Marlene felt something.
She thought: Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do, in some way, just a little bit? She thought: I have felt that way before. I’ve wanted to get outside of myself; I’ve imagined my body above my body; why not use balloons to disappear? Well, not disappear, but to hover—to move in a way I can’t move on my own.
Marlene got back into her car and listened to nothing but the sound of her breathing until she got to California.
Inside the gallery, Marlene returns her attention to the man with the paper bag head. Her hands are still on him, but she has stopped rocking. The cloak stays fastened to his neck. He is unbothered. The paper bag is on his head. He is stationary.
“This seems a little empty,” she says. “You aren’t doing anything. What are you trying to accomplish? It’s a little childish, really. All you are is a mirror.”
Marlene circles the table again. She wonders what would happen if she stripped naked. If the man would register the sound of fabric hitting the ground, if her body, as just a body, would mean anything, would he notice her then, or would she still be nothing?
He does not make a sound.
“These tickets weren’t cheap, but you know that. You’re probably smirking under there. Maybe you’re counting bills. What if I was so hilarious I made you laugh? What would you do? Maybe you have a muzzle. No, that’s ridiculous; you’re just the most censored, controlled, disciplined man. Every man I know is your antithesis. Like my father. You know what the saddest thing is? That he does dream, but he can’t remember. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, it does, he just can’t be bothered with a small good thing that makes living easier.”
Marlene paces in front of the table.
“It’s like not having time for ice cream.”
The man with the paper bag head has not moved, or she has not seen him move; surely, if he had, she would have caught him, or more so, the man could not have moved, he made a vow not to, surely that makes movement impossible.
Some people must still keep their promises.
An alarm sounds, not quite shrill enough to indicate a fire, more delicate, like something ready to come out of an oven. Marlene knows her time is up.
The man with the paper bag head says nothing.
A door, not the one she entered by, but one that was masquerading as part of the wall, opens. Marlene shuts her eyes and moves toward it. The door brings light into the room that is unlike the light already there.
“This is like a dream,” she says to the man. “Only you can’t see it.”
Another door opens, another pair of feet stumble in.
Marlene is sure the person who replaces her will not be a normal. She realizes, perhaps for the first time, she does not care. She has chosen not to.
The man with the paper bag head stays in his chair.